Clare Millar interviews Ellen Cregan, who is the Marketing and Events Coordinator at Readings.
What did you study?
I did a bachelor of arts and the University of Melbourne, with honours in Creative Writing. During my BA, I did all the literary subjects I possibly could, and also a few on ancient history when I had run out of lit to add to my timetable.
What is the most useful skill you learned in your degree? And what was the most enjoyable part of your studies?
In my third year, a lecturer told me that the most useful thing I was going to learn at uni was to talk about books I hadn’t read yet. I thought he was joking, but it turns out he was completely correct. Beyond this, I think my degree taught me to be a better thinker, and improved my ability to articulate the ideas in my head. And to confirm that I’m a massive nerd, the most enjoyable part of studying for me was all the researching and reading.
And you did your honours thesis on Dorothy Porter’s poetry, didn’t you? What role does poetry play in your life now?
My honours thesis was about biographical nonfiction poetry, and yes—Dorothy Porter’s Ahkenaten was one of the key texts I looked at in the critical side of things. (The other two texts I analysed were Jessica Wilkinson’s Marionette and Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity—I highly recommend both.) Nowadays, I’d consider myself to be purely a reader of poetry—I had a red hot go at writing it, but my talents lie elsewhere!
Tell us about being on the Voiceworks editorial committee.
Being on EdComm was a really interesting experience. I was a poetry editor, and at the time I was there, poetry was treated like a strange, out-of-town cousin—the poetry editors used to go into a separate room to select the work we wanted in the magazine, while the fiction and nonfiction editors would work together a bit more on their selections. This system predated me, and I always found it to be an odd approach! There was definitely a sense of poetry being from a slightly different planet to the rest of the mag. But I made some great friends there, and also met people through Express Media who would become excellent professional contacts.
What does a typical day look like for you at Readings? What skills make you successful in this role?
My role requires me to be a bit of an all rounder, which makes this question a little difficult to answer! My job title is marketing coordinator, and I’m pretty much around to help anyone in the Readings marketing department who needs it. I work on promotions and campaigns doing things like organising print collateral. I organise signage and other resources for Readings’ seven shops. I do various admin-type tasks: keeping track customer mailing lists, making sure our designer has complete briefs for any work she’s been asked to do, fielding enquiries from the general public about marketing-related things, etc. I also help out with the Readings Monthly quite a bit: I manage the advertising that we offer, edit blurb copy, gather assets and proofread. I definitely consider myself to be a bookseller above all else, but as I work in an office and not on the shop floor, I don’t know how many of my colleagues would agree with that label! And I would say that the key skills for this role are organisation, a good memory, and the ability to prioritise and be able to throw your plan for the day out the window at short notice and make a completely new one. All great life skills, in my opinion.
How has your role changed/challenged you during the pandemic?
Well firstly, the familiar changes—my hours have been reduced, I have been working from home, and I’ve felt a fair amount of uncertainty around my employment. When the first lockdown happened, I was stood down in my actual role, and I was only working one day a week helping with data entry for the Readings website. That was quite an upsetting time. The silver lining was that I had a chance to work on the digital side of things—I have a better understanding of the back end of the website now, and have learnt new skills around that. The most challenging thing for me has been the rate at which information has flowed down—with the ever-changing public health situation, decisions are made and unmade so quickly, and sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out what’s going on. And this is made even more difficult with the team all working from home, which makes communication tricky. While this is no one’s fault, a certain amount of my job involves getting information from one set of people to another, so this interruption has challenged my patience. But I think this set of circumstances has also improved my ability to go with the flow and to be flexible in my approach to work.
You were selected as one of Melbourne City of Literature’s Booksellers in Residence in 2020. What did you do in Seattle?
Going to the US in March was very strange, but also very interesting. I was there before any ‘stay at home’ directives were issued in Seattle, but lockdowns were creeping up—school was cancelled, people were definitely freaked out, and there were some restrictions about public gatherings coming into place. While my initial plans of attending events and touring libraries were cancelled, what I was able to do in Seattle mostly was to have long conversations with booksellers. A lot of it was comparing notes about working conditions, relationships with publishers, what our respective customers like to buy most, opportunities, etc. But it was awesome to hear about how young American booksellers see their futures playing out. In the Australian industry, I feel like there’s so much talk about encouraging young people to view working in bookshops as a career, but there hasn’t been much meaningful action taken to make space for newcomers. I don’t believe there’s a true willingness to support new ideas at the moment, for whatever reason. But in the US, it seems like steps are actually being taken to give young people more control and responsibility in their bookselling industry, and to set them up with the professional skills they might need in the future. This was really interesting to hear about.
You’re also the host for Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club. What does this involve? Why first books?
I’ve been working with KYD on the First Book Club for a couple of years now, and in that time we’ve featured short fiction, atmospheric novels, sci-fi, powerful nonfiction, YA, and heaps more. I review the book of the month, and in the pre-COVID times, I would also host an event for each book, but this has morphed into podcast interviews with the authors since lockdowns began. First books are generally an author’s first impression on the general public, and I think having the chance to bolster a new author’s first work is a really special thing. The FBC celebrates these first forays into the literary world, and as host, I try to make sure that the book in question is going to find its way to the readership who will most enjoy it.
And you’re training to be a Pilates instructor! Is that something you see yourself doing as a primary job?
I’ve always used movement as a way of escaping my brain—and working with the written word so often means that these escapes are all the more valuable. Pilates has a really interesting history, and at risk of sounding like a wanker it’s quite an intellectual form of movement. It asks us to think about and inhabit the body in a complex way, and I find this super interesting. I started my teacher training back in May as something to do to pass the time while I was stood down and in iso, but it’s definitely one of the better decisions I’ve made in the past few years! While I don’t think I’m gunning for a full-time career in teaching Pilates, I definitely want to do some teaching once I’ve qualified—not necessarily as a way to boost income (although that would be nice!) but more as a method of doing something I love and hopefully helping and connecting with other people in the process.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
This year, I was one of the judges for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and that was a huge career highlight for me. This year’s winner is Rhett Davis, and in his winner’s speech he said that he’d just about given up on writing when he submitted his manuscript to the prize — the fact that myself and the other two judges were able to reignite the dreams of an extremely good writer made me feel very proud.
And what are you hopeful for or excited about?
To be completely honest and slightly grim I think it’s really hard to feel hopeful about anything right now, in the bookselling world or beyond. But the thing that does give me hope is that each year, Australian writing seems to be getting better, more diverse, and more widely-read. I feel like we’re leaving the days of the Winton-esque small town anglo-Australia narrative behind us, and we’re seeing more work from First Nations writers, writers of colour, and writers from all kinds of class backgrounds. While it’s hard to know what the industry will look like in the future, I feel confident saying that there will be more and more clever, inspiring and impactful books to support in Australia with each passing year.
And just as an extra note, I think it’s important to stress to people who want to get into the book industry that it’s got to be an active pursuit—book people tend to be introverted, but like any other industry, success in this world is a case of making the effort to get to know the right people and representing yourself well. Be friendly! Get involved! Try to give people the benefit of the doubt if you have a weird first interaction with them! And get to know Australian books and writing!
Clare Millar and Ellen Cregan met as poetry editors on the Voiceworks editorial committee in 2016. They now both work for Readings.